Dear the Able: Don’t Make Lord Freud’s Words the Thing

At a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, was recorded saying the some disabled people are “not worth the full wage”. Outraged, disabled people and others called on Freud to apologise at the very least, and many questioned the wisdom of a Prime Minister who would appoint someone with such views to the welfare reform brief. Freud has now apologised, though he keeps his job. He has said that disabled people should be paid at least the full minimum wage, and “that is is offensive to suggest anything else.” With that the story has now promptly been dropped from the programme at the media circus. Economist and social theorist Stuart Chase warned us to beware making the word the thing, and this is a lesson that we have roundly ignored in this case. Here I hope to bring ‘The Thing’ back to the attention of abled bodied people.

As an able bodied person myself it is certainly not my intention to accuse disabled people of making the word the thing – this article is addressed primarily to abled bodied people, and in particular those would consider themselves to supporters of social justice for disabled people. To often, across many different politics of oppression, the self-proclaimed progressives amongst the privileged are guilty of making the word the thing, in this case, Ed Miliband has provided a classic example. Quick to jump on Lord Freud’s reprehensible words to make a political point, he has ignored the deeper concern of the structural oppression of disabled people. To truly oppose the oppression of disabled people is not simply to make the words the thing, and the able progressive needs to learn this.

I am warning against making the word the thing, so it is only right that I spell out in detail what it is that I mean by this. In particular I want to distinguish my claim from a simpler claim made by certain reactionary groups. When I say that I do not want to make the word the thing this is not a claim that ‘political correctness has gone mad’ nor claim that ‘free-speech’ is under assault. Lord Freud’s words were politically incorrect, but that is not the reason to criticise them. Equally, mass protests asking for an apology are not an assault on his free speech, free speech doesn’t protect some free speech from the effects of other people’s free speech. Such arguments are made by those is the right side of a power disparity and serve only to maintain their positions of power, and their so-called ‘right to offend’.

My claim is not that Lord Freud’s words are merely words to be protected by free speech and that criticising his words is to turn them into a thing when they are only words, rather it is that the words are already a thing, but that making the words the thing distracts from the thing which they already are by turning them into something else. When we make Lord Freud’s words the thing we make them ‘objects of offence’ – and yes they do offend. However, they are already a thing, they are part of systematic oppression. They are an ordering, a ranking, a valuing of disabled people under the able – this forms part of the power structures which oppress disabled people. By making the words the thing, by making the ‘offensive objects’ the thing, the oppression of disabled people is allowed to persist, covered by a facade of ‘progressive’ abled bodied concern.

Ed Miliband’s decision to focus on the offensive objects, Lord Freud’s words, has allowed the thing to pass unscathed and the voices of many disabled rights activists calling for a focus on the things to be obscured. So let us turn to the thing, the policy under discussion when Lord Freud so clumsily ‘thought out loud’. The policy proposed was to allow employers to hire disabled people for £2 an hour and have the state top up the wage to meet the minimum wage. For some this policy was actually very progressive. It would allow more disabled people to be hired, allowing them the satisfaction and improve quality of life that comes from working, as well as making it financially feasible for companies to hire people with disabilities.

Despite sounding like a progressive policy it relies on the deeply reactionary thesis that the market is a neutral decision maker. The thought is that the market chooses to hire employees purely based on productivity, and that since some disabled people are less productive it is entirely natural for the market not to hire them unless it is able to pay them proportionally to their output by paying them less than the minimum wage. Thus by removing the minimum wage restriction on businesses we allow disabled people the improved quality of life which comes from being employed.

Unsurprisingly the one-size-fits-all solution of deregulation beloved by market fundamentalists fails to fit the specifics of policy around disability. The crucial mistake is the claim that markets are neutral. That is to say decisions are made only reflecting factors internal to the market system like productivity and utility, and not external and unrelated factors like disability, race or gender. It doesn’t take any great leap of imagination, or long spent pouring through the thousands and thousands of studies, to recognise that disability, race and gender (amongst other external factors) do affect market decisions. Another to put this is to say that disability, race, gender and other supposed external factors are not really external to the market at all, only to our own modelling of it.

Whilst it is true that some people are not capable of performing some jobs, this is true for everyone, not just disabled people. Disabled people face additional prejudice in the job market, particularly the perception that they are less able to perform roles which are totally unaffected by their individual disability. Able bodied people do not face this challenge. My lack of telephone manner might prevent me being a call centre operative, but it wouldn’t prevent me being a bricklayer. For people with disabilities, a particular inability is not judged to be particular, but creates a more holistic judgement of a person’s economic (and human) value. An inability in one area translates to overall inability, seemingly with little regard for how accurate this assessment is. The market doesn’t fail to hire disabled people because they are unproductive workers, but because of a structural ableism which constructs a series of prejudices which result in the perception that they are unproductive. Any policy that concerns disability and employment must acknowledge this phenomena, and the problem with the proposal at the Conservative Party conference is that it is completely ignored.

The lack neutrality in the market is ignored in the policy proposed or ‘thought out loud’ about by Lord Freud. Thanks to the Lord Freud scandal this particular policy proposal is unlikely to ever be implemented, but the fact that the policy itself has gone unchallenged means the deeply flawed thinking which underlies could spring similarly misguided policies. This is the risk that is run when able bodied social justice warriors make the word the thing.